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Columnist Zaid Alsubaiei explores how Penn students can improve their writing skills. Credit: Sydney Curran

The college experience teaches you many skills, from how to take notes to pulling off all nighters to surviving on a diet of takeout and microwave noodles. One set of skills, though, that our educational institutions often struggle to get right is academic writing, and Penn is no exception. So, why, even at a university like Penn, are students still struggling with this fundamental skill? 

Surprisingly, the issue in the United States does not seem to begin at the college level, but during the all-important school years. “Three-quarters of both 12th and 8th graders lack proficiency in writing,” a 2017 analysis by Dana Goldstein of The New York Times found. The reason this is such a shock is because writing was meant to be a central component of the Common Core State Standards — a model that outlined K–12 student expectations. The standards have been adopted in a majority of states for over a decade but have clearly missed the mark on their intended goal. The national deficiency only seems to be worsening, especially in the post-COVID-19 era

Common Core’s perceived failure is attributed to the fact that it simply lists the expectations of students without providing educators with the means for students to reach them. It also assumes that students of a particular grade level have a uniform command of English and that instructors are prepared to teach writing, neither of which appear to be the case. Consequently, students graduate from high school without being able to write in a way that is neither original nor skilled, a long-standing concern of employers. 

While university-mandated writing coursework has slightly improved student outcomes, it has not made a notable dent in the broader issue. And, at an institution like Penn, the matter becomes all the more problematic. From students’ dissatisfaction with the writing requirement to the seemingly never-ending barrage of deadlines to meet, the act of writing becomes a tedious task to deal with in an already intense pre-professional environment. The deadlines pile up and force students into a race against time, where the intimidation of the blank page turns into fear as midnight fast approaches. The pressure incentivizes students to submit a “passable draft,” and increasingly through questionable means.

The pattern that links these failed attempts is, though educators try to help students become good writers, we do not know or have even questioned what "good" writing is. Ask yourself, "What is good writing?" Then, ask your friend the same. Did you two arrive at the same answer? Significantly different? I wouldn’t know; Siri gave me the cold shoulder.

The disparity is even present among Penn faculty. When asked, Director of the Critical Writing Program at Penn Matthew Osborn replied in an email, “There is a sense in which ‘good writing’ cannot be universalized, for effective prose is adapted to its occasion and audience.” When asked the same, professor Jean-Christophe Cloutier, the undergraduate chair of the English department, referenced a quote by Jack Kerouac, implying that excellent writing expresses “the unspeakable visions of the individual.”

To be able to know and do something, you need to be able to define it. The same principle applies to writing. Using the two assertions of faculty, we can come up with our own definition of "good" writing. 

A piece of writing may be deemed ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ if it strategically and proficiently employs the writer’s voice for a given argument and audience. With this definition, the quality of a given piece still cannot be absolutely judged. But it marks a starting point for a skill — dare I say a craft — that has been plagued with a lack of standardization by the education system.

That is what I am advocating: standardization and clear plans of implementation. The fact that students have accepted the assumption that graded papers need not have a clear rubric is disheartening. Even when a rubric is provided, many instructors use the general quality of writing to justify point deductions in courses beyond the writing seminar. Not only does this provide evaluators with excessive autonomy when grading, but it disproportionately impacts international students. I say this as someone who learned Arabic as a second language in Saudi Arabia, where my writing proficiency (actually, deficiency) followed me in nearly every academic subject.

The writing issue, if left unchecked, will continue to worsen and further exacerbate America’s severe literacy crisis. The role, however, that we can play as students is to improve our own writing and help others do the same (underwhelming, I know, but bear with me). 

While some are convinced it starts with students and others with educators, I believe it starts with writing by hand. Students who usually take notes on a laptop tend to perform worse on conceptual questions in a course than those taking handwritten notes, a 2021 study found. I won’t speak much about practicing, as I know not many have the time or inclination to write papers for the sake of it (hats off to all you language majors out there). 

Instead, try to take advantage of the written papers you’re already doing for courses. Rather than checking the grade and quickly skimming the feedback, hone in on it. Dissect what went well and what didn’t. Is there a comment by the grader you don’t agree with? Send an email or meet with them during office hours and ask what went wrong. 

Consider these assignments as opportunities to improve on your writing while you still have the chance. In doing so, you improve your overall proficiency and thus help reverse the generational decline in writing.

Credit: Sydney Curran

ZAID ALSUBAIEI is a College first year studying economics from Al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia. His email address is